AFGHANISTAN -- Vice President Mike Pence touched down in Afghanistan for an unannounced visit on Thursday night to meet with top Afghan officials and rally US troops for his first trip to the country as vice president.
The trip, planned in secret for safety reasons, made Pence the highest-ranking Trump administration official to visit an active US combat zone and came four months after President Donald Trump committed several thousand more US troops to the 16-year war effort. During his visit, Pence touted the new US strategy and stressed the US's to achieving victory here.
"I believe victory is closer than ever before," Pence told troops here late Thursday night.
Reporters traveling with Pence agreed to keep the trip secret until an hour before Pence was scheduled to fly back to the US.
Pence landed here at 7:16 p.m. in an ordinary, gray C-17 military transport plane intended to conceal his arrival. He then donned a bulletproof vest and, under cover of darkness, boarded a heavily armed helicopter convoy to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace, in the heart of Kabul.
There, the two men discussed the changes to the US strategy in Afghanistan, progress against Taliban militants and terrorist groups and the country's delicate political state of affairs.
"We're here to see this through," Pence told Ghani. "We believe that we are now on a path to achieving a lasting victory for freedom and security in Afghanistan."
About an hour and a half later, Pence was back on the military base in Bagram to rally several hundred US troops, thanking them for their service during the holiday season and taking the chance to tout the direction of the new US strategy. The troops were under strict orders not to share news of Pence's presence until he had left.
"The United States of America will no longer be bound by arbitrary timetables in Afghanistan. As the President said, America's enemies must never know our plans. They must never believe they can wait us out. Instead our decisions will be based on an objective assessment of conditions on the ground," Pence said. "A relentless pursuit of victory will guide us and nothing else."
Pence's visit here was initially scheduled to take place at the end of a multi-day trip to Egypt and Israel. That trip was postponed until next month so that the Vice President -- who can cast a tiebreaking vote in the Senate -- could be on hand for congressional votes on the GOP tax bill, which passed Wednesday. But the trip to Afghanistan secretly remained on Pence's schedule.
He arrived in Afghanistan exactly four months after Trump announced plans to beef up the US military presence in Afghanistan, signing off on a modest surge of several thousand more US troops tasked primarily with conducting counterterrorism missions and training Afghan security forces. The decision made Trump the third US president to increase troop levels in Afghanistan and reversed President Barack Obama's moves to gradually withdraw US troops from the country.
Sixteen years after the US invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Afghan and NATO forces in the country remain on a war footing. The US-led NATO coalition and Afghan troops are still battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but are now also fighting ISIS, where a regional affiliate of the terrorist group known as ISIS-K has established a foothold in recent years.
The most recent outbreak of violence came days before Pence arrived in Kabul, where militants on Monday attacked a training center for Afghanistan's national intelligence service. A day earlier, there were separate attacks on a NATO convoy and a police checkpoint in southern Afghanistan.
Despite the heightened security situation, a senior White House official said Pence felt it important to meet with Ghani at his palace in Kabul "out of respect," rather than asking Ghani to meet him on the US military base.
Pence was joined by the US commanding general in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, who joined Pence for his meeting with Ghani alongside a handful of top White House aides, including the Vice President's chief of staff Nick Ayers and the President's deputy national security adviser Dina Powell.
The planning for Pence's trip to Afghanistan began quietly this fall, with only a handful of White House aides in the loop.
A senior White House official said Pence and Trump decided the Vice President should go to Afghanistan to tout the new US strategy and because of Pence's close working relationship with Ghani, whom Pence speaks with about once a month.